A little over a week ago, Taal Volcano spewed a huge cloud of ash and smoke into the air, starting a humanitarian crisis that could last for weeks, months, or even years. Scientists have warned that a major eruption is imminent — but do not know how imminent. It could happen next week, or it could happen in months or in a year. Some towns in the areas most affected by the current ash fall forced residents to evacuate. These displaced people are now sheltered in barangay centers, schools, and other places as they assess and try to figure out their next moves. There is a controversy now with some insisting on a rapid return despite warnings from scientists not to do so.

I understand why some people want to return to their homes, even with the dangers. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for people to have to evacuate suddenly and to live with only the things they were able to bring with them in their haste. I’m sure they’re also concerned about the security of their homes and belongings. Pets and livestock were also left behind.

Returning issues aside, the reality is that many people are living in evacuation centers, and officials must anticipate that if/when a major eruption occurs, hundreds of thousands more people will find themselves seeking shelter in evacuation centers.

While evacuation centers or camps are necessary during and post-disaster, unfortunately, they often have security risks, and women and girls are most vulnerable. In these situations, women and girls (and sometimes men and boys as well) can be coerced or forced into exchanging sex for basic needs including food and shelter. Similarly, some people resort to commercial sex work in order to generate income. Unfortunately, these instances have often occurred in the past between aid workers, volunteers and the populations they are supposed to be serving. As these realities have been exposed though, some international and local aid organizations are doing more to reduce the risk of this kind of sexual abuse and exploitation. But we still need to remain vigilant to minimize these risks.

Traumatic events also lead to tension and stress. Often stress and feeling helpless about the current situation can increase the risk for sexual violence. Studies show that rape is not usually perpetrated in order to seek sexual pleasure but rather to exert power, and control, and this, coupled with crowded conditions, can lead to increased incidences of rape and sexual assault.

It is also important to note that during traumatic events like disasters and forced evacuations, people’s sexual behavior can change. Sometimes people who previously were not sexually active become so as a way of coping with the situation. When people have lost family, loved ones and all their belongings, sometimes sex is all they have left for comfort and to feel good. If reproductive health services are not accessible, women will get pregnant, adding further burden to already vulnerable women.

Now is the time for local government units and disaster risk and reduction teams to bear these vulnerabilities in mind and put plans in place to try to reduce the risks of sexual violence and cases of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

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